Petty Traders in the Caucasus and Beyond

Researcher: Susanne Fehlings


The research topic is Caucasian petty traders and their informal trading routes in post-Soviet Eurasia. In Central Asia and the Caucasus one can observe many travellers, especially elderly women covering long distances to buy a few goods, such as furniture and clothes, which they sell for a small profit in the markets of their home countries. These are the actors in the so-called “globalization from below.”

Very often the traders prefer historical routes that go through Siberia or along the old Silk Road. These routes became uneconomical for large-scale trade following the expansion of seafaring (Ipek 2007). But the petty traders seem to choose these routes because — among other reasons — they are established where the traders’ social or family networks are based or where diasporic communities have migrated to; these informal routes sometimes reach as far as Japan and China.


This subproject focuses how these routes come into being; on how the knowledge about routes is passed on to the next generation and to peers; and on how and why routes change. This implies, of course, the investigation of the formal framework and the history of bureaucracy as formal institutions determine commercial laws, borders, and therefore decision-making (negotiating the state).

Furthermore, Fehlings plans to investigate the travellers (traders) themselves, especially their social and cultural background. What are their motives? What relationships exist among traders, between traders and their travel routes, and between travellers and the people and places on the crossroads as they make their way to distant markets? How does their socio-cultural background (value dynamics) influence their economic activities and their decisions to trade in specific ways with specific goods?


To investigate these questions, Fehlings has already started to do research on local markets in Tbilisi (Georgia) by using classical anthropological field methods and archival work. Within our project, she will continue her work by following the traders on their trading routes. This implies a multi-sited approach (Marcus 1998), which in this context means that she will travel with the traders to get an insight into the whole process of trade by observing every step of their economic activities. The close contact with traders will simultaneously reveal the socio-cultural background of the actors (traders, state officials, etc.), which is necessary to understand how economic exchange and decision-making is culturally embedded.

Collaboration with other group members and contribution to the joint project

Fehlings already started her research with the support of Khutsishvili. Her further work on this topic will involve cooperation with Khutsishvili, Antonian, and Melkumyan, who all work in the Caucasus. This means we investigate similar local markets and the same socio-cultural background from different perspectives. The fact that Fehlings, like Karrar, is interested in the travels and mobility of traders and in trade routes provides our research group with a geographical link between the Caucasus and Central Asia, simply because traders and goods cross the whole area. This will help us to understand economic networks and the flow of ideas, values, and goods across the region. By focusing on the topics mentioned above, working on the same sites of investigation with the same type of people (local markets, traders and entrepreneurs), using similar sources, tools and methods, this project will contribute to generate a joint dataset for comparison and to get to a deeper understanding of informal economy and informal globalization in the part of the world that we investigate.